International Drug Control: Consensus Fractured

International Drug Control: Consensus Fractured

Author: David R. Bewley-Taylor 
Publisher:  Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 344p.
Reviewer: Angelica Duran-Martinez | November 2012

In 1998, the member states of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) issued a political declaration on the World Drug Problem, where they committed to work towards eliminating or reducing significantly the production, trafficking, and consumption of coca, cannabis, and opium by 2008. In 2009, such commitments were reviewed at the High Level Segment that brought together representatives from 130 countries to carry out the review. At the High Level Segment many countries lamented the failure to achieve the 1998 goals, but in general terms continued backing the prohibitionist spirit of the multilateral drug control system.  International Drug Control: Consensus Fractured, by David R. Bewley-Taylor, presents a comprehensive, critical, and nuanced analysis of the evolution of the Global Drug Prohibition Regime since the UNGASS declaration up until the High Level Segment review, a period he labels as the UNGASS decade (1998-2009).

Bewley-Taylor’s major contention is that during the UNGASS decade, the prohibition regime experienced significant weakening and transformation.  This was mainly because of the practical soft-defection of Parties to the drug control treaties (including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs). During this decade, Bewley-Taylor argues, drug policy became increasingly contested, and a process of normative  attrition started to take place.

Drawing on an impressive and unique analysis of internal documents of the key bodies of the Global Drug Prohibition Regime-GDPR (the International Narcotics Control Board -INCB and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime -UNODC), discussions within key multilateral meetings, and interviews, the author provides a crucial source of data and analysis to understand the intricacies of the GDPR, especially in the context of the inner workings of the United Nations.

According to the author, two main mechanisms of soft defection have been crucial for regime weakening: the increasing implementation of harm reduction approaches to drug use, and the less widespread, but still significant, adoption of alternative regulations on cannabis. The author illustrates how the adoption of these two forms of pragmatic deviation, far from being an anomaly, have become crucial points of tension within the regime.
In chapter two, the author points out that 74 countries have adopted or expressed support for harm reduction approaches. The support for harm reduction emerged mainly within public health practitioners advocating for policies such as opioid substitution, needle exchange programs, controlled prescription, and consumption rooms — approaches that could mitigate the most deleterious health consequences of drug use.  More specifically, Bewley-Taylor explains the emergence of harm reduction approaches as a pragmatic policy response to the spread of HIV-AIDS within intravenous drug users. While the range, content and scale of harm reduction varies widely among countries, the author explains how the introduction of some form of harm reduction in so many countries has nonetheless contributed to weakening the drug control regime.  Although Bewley-Taylor may at times overlook that in some of these 74 countries, harm reduction interventions may be isolated efforts by the NGO community, rather than significant deviations from the spirit of the GDPR, he stills shows convincingly the relevance of harm reduction in challenging the regime, and documents the strong reactions it generated.  One example is the US threat to withdraw funding to the UNODC if it continued supporting harm reduction interventions in Brazil.

In an interesting illustration of the challenging power of harm reduction to the spirit of the GDPR, the author explores the contingencies and the tensions within the European Union (EU), the INCB, and the UNODC, regarding the inclusion of the term harm reduction in internal documents and multilateral resolutions and declarations.  Bewley-Taylor contends that the challenging power of harm reduction was reflected in the inclusion of the concept in resolutions regarding AIDS and in the official inclusion of the term in an EU declaration in 2004, and in subsequent EU declarations of support for harm reduction.  However, he also shows how, in an example of the strength and adaptive power of the GDPR spirit and of the power of its bureaucracies, the term harm reduction was –paradoxically- embraced by the UNODC as a term describing everything the UNODC did (p. 136), including its preference for drug abstinence. Thus, the assessment of harm reduction presented by the author is not a blind declaration of hope for change. He shows how the expansion of harm reduction has done as much to challenge the system, as to maintain it.

In chapter five, Bewley-Taylor discusses similar tensions regarding the second form of soft defection through different approaches to cannabis regulation, such as decriminalization, depenalization, and de facto and de jure legalization of cannabis use. The support for cannabis reform, unlike that of harm reduction, has mainly come from those advocating for it as a way to reduce costs for law enforcement operations. In this realm, change has been less widespread than in harm reduction, with only 36 Parties to the Conventions engaging in some form of soft defection policies regarding cannabis. Tensions and opposition over cannabis have been stronger than in the case of harm reduction, and as a consequence, references to policies in this area have not even been included in resolutions or documents, as has occurred with harm reduction.

One of the main problems in the case of cannabis policies, Bewley-Taylor explains, is the contradiction and tensions that emerge in its implementation with punitive, supply-focused enforcement. The author shows that surprisingly, despite soft defection in cannabis policies, according to the UNODC, 62% of countries have seen an increase in marihuana possession offences. The author explores different arguments to explain this paradox, such as the use of cannabis policies as a signifier of political intent, which makes it a lot more dependent on the political leanings of presidents and political events, or the crucial role of cannabis in sustaining the GDPR.  In the end, he concludes that despite these problems, soft defection on cannabis is similar to harm reduction in two key aspects: first, both forms of defection operate through caveats in the legal interpretation of treaties, thus contributing to the paradox of sustaining, while challenging the regime; second, the growing number of members adopting cannabis law reform since 1998 has contributed to normative attrition and subsequent regime weakening.

Even though the author does a great job in analyzing the caveats and nuances of soft defection, leading him to make a balanced argument about possibilities and obstacles for transformation, he ends up downplaying the tension between soft defection in demand side interventions, and the persistence of a hard line in supply side interventions. I will come back to this point at the end.

In a superb illustration of the importance of theoretical eclecticism in international relations analyses, Bewley-Taylor draws on a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain the crucial paradox that constitutes the main narrative of the book: the pragmatic deviations taking place within the GDPR weaken it, but at the same time contribute to maintaining it, as they do not challenge the spirit of the conventions and even contribute to showing their capacity for adaptation. Guided by a neorealist perspective, the author shows how the central role of the United States in creating and sustaining the GDPR is essential to understanding the resilience of the regime. At the same time, changes in global power distribution can explain the practical deviations taking place especially in Europe, and the increasing challenges to the regime.  The author does not stop, however, with a neorealist reading. Liberal insights are crucial for the author to explain and analyze the dynamics of regime formation and decline, the role of international bureaucracies such as the UNODC and the INCB in sustaining the regime (explained in chapter six), and the importance of non-state actors, mainly national and international NGOs, in contributing to magnifying the challenges to the regime. The role of knowledge and ideas is also a crucial part of the narrative, while showing for example the importance of knowledge in the public health community supporting harm reduction.  Ideational insights also appear prominently when the author analyzes the role of non-binding resolutions (such as those relating to AIDS) in creating tensions within the GDPR, and explains how crucial are tensions over language both in preventing change, but also in increasing dissonance.

In the last chapter, the author analyzes why reform beyond soft defection is necessary, assesses the possibilities for regime change, and suggests some of the possible, realistic expectations for regime change. He argues that reform is necessary to solve technical issues, but most importantly, because the current spirit of the Conventions restricts the room for policy experimentation. Issues such as a more homogenous statement on harm reduction and a rescheduling of cannabis and coca leaf in the schedules of drugs, are some of the changes suggested as being feasible for reform. His assessment of how change may look infuses a much needed reality check about where discussions on drug reform can evolve more significantly.

Bewley-Taylor also shows how the power of the US; the vertical disconnect between countries’ defections at the national and subnational level, and their inaction at the international level; and political issues, still greatly restrict the possibilities for reform. In a way, the concluding assessment of regime reform seems to be a lot more cautionary than the nuanced, but still mostly positive, assessment of regime weakening in the previous chapters. Some issues that were not mentioned at length throughout the book do appear in the conclusion, and this is in my view, the main weakness of the book.  This is especially true with respect to the discussion of the tensions between supply and demand side reforms.

Partially, this shortcoming derives from the author’s main focus on the inner working of the regime bureaucracies and the UN bodies, with limited attention to the countries that sit most uncomfortably with the regime, that is, developing nations, and drug producing and transit countries. The author does discuss at length Brazil’s engagement with needle and syringe programs and its effort to include references to them in AIDS resolutions; the Bolivian effort to request a formal change to the treaties and reschedule coca leaf;  and, Colombia’s and Mexico’s efforts to reform laws regarding the possession of drugs for personal consumption.  

There is, however, little discussion about how these countries’ disproportionate effort (and pressure) to use hard line, punitive approaches in efforts to deter drug production and distribution, magnifies their challenges for introducing soft defection. For example, in practical terms, efforts to decriminalize or depenalize possession of drugs for personal consumption have clashed with law enforcement’s efforts to dismantle criminal organizations and with their belief that criminals may take advantage of such measures to hide, and fragment drug distribution networks.
Taking into account the situation of drug producing countries, and the tensions between supply and demand, does not negate that even in these countries harm reduction and soft cannabis regulations can represent a challenge to the regime. Furthermore, these deviations are increasingly necessary, as drug producing countries have to deal with significant problems of drug use, even though consumption rates are still lower than in other regions of the world. According to the UNODC 2011 World Drug Report, cocaine use in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean is higher than the global average, and even though it is still much lower than the prevalence rates in the US, it is close to the European rates.

Opiods and cannabis consumption prevalence rates in the region are lower than the global average, but the key point is that even for countries where production and transit are more prevalent, changes in demand side interventions can have a significant impact. But the key question remains, how to reconcile the tensions between the softening of demand side measures while supply side measures continue to be hardened? This question is even more important considering that while evidence and research on the advantages of harm reduction approaches is significant, especially in Europe, there is significantly less discussion and analysis about what the alternatives to highly punitive supply measures may look like, and what the implications of such alternative measures could be.

In the conclusion, the author devotes a brief mention to the emergence in 2009 of the Latin American and Global Commissions on Drugs and Democracy, which includes the former Presidents of Brazil (Fernando Cardoso), Colombia (Cesar Gaviria), and Mexico (Ernesto Zedillo) and has called for a “change of paradigm” in drug control. Bewley-Taylor acknowledges the significance of the Commission, especially because it includes former Presidents that dealt with major drug trafficking problems.  However, he emphasizes that short of commitments by heads of state, these civil society led efforts may do little to change the regime in practice. Furthermore, he argues that regime change is likely to occur only if more powerful states in the European Union decide to break the vertical disconnect and act beyond their boundaries to propose actual changes in the treaties of the GDPR. Here again the author infuses important doses of realism in assessing the possibilities of reform, although he fails to explore the deeper contradictions that emerge in the discussion of drug policy reform when considering less developed countries.

In the latter regard, the events occurring in early 2012, when several sitting presidents of Latin America (including the President of Colombia and the President of Guatemala) called for a discussion of drug policy reform in the VI Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia in April 2012, deserve some brief mention. This event confirmed Bewley-Taylor’s assessment of the increasing fractures of the regime, as sitting presidents for the first time called for a discussion of drug policy. Yet, it also confirmed his fears about the obstacles for regime change.

The discussions of the Summit represented another important fracture in the GDPR. The absence of a final political declaration for the Summit in general, and for the drug reform topic in particular, as well as the delegation of the discussion to the Organization of American States, illustrate the great difficulties in achieving any consensus on the minimum terms to initiate a discussion on regime change.

It is possible that many Latin American countries supported the discussion in the Americas Summit motivated by the spreading drug related violence in their countries (Mexico and Central America mainly), hoping that regime change can bring about a stabilization of their own internal security situations. The problem is that the connection between drug policy reform and violence remains blurry; it is likely that harm reduction approaches and the relaxation of marihuana regulations may not bring about a reduction in violence, and that reforms on demand side policies would still clash with the punitive supply policies that have created so many tensions in Latin America. This is why the issues and countries that Bewley-Taylor discusses only tangentially (supply side measures and developing countries) need to become a more central objective of analysis in the assessment of alternatives to the current Drug Control Regime.  This is true even if change is likely to happen only if powerful actors push for it.

In any case, International Drug control: Consensus Fractured is an interesting, and theoretically and empirically informed analysis, that contributes much to those interested in the academic analysis, but also in the actual advocacy of drug reform.  The book will become a must read in this realm. Beyond drug policy, the book is also a great source for those interested in the analysis of international norms and regimes, and in understanding the inner workings of the UN system.

Angelica Duran-Martinez,
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science,
Brown University.
Drugs, Security and Democracy Fellow, Open Society Foundation and SSRC.

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